One of the more significant migrations in recent American history doesn’t involve pioneers heading West, refugees seeking sanctuary, or Joad-like families rambling in search of work. It involves the trajectory of our nation’s most talented citizens, who since the 1970s have been clustering ever more densely in favored cities, and gradually abandoning the places in between.
In a mid-2000s piece for The Atlantic, Richard Florida, long a booster of “creative class” conurbations, noted that in 1970 college graduates were distributed pretty evenly around the country, but that three decades later they were much more concentrated. A few regions (the BosWash Northeast, the Bay Area, etc.) were destinations of choice for the well-educated, and large swaths of the country emphatically were not. In Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, he noted, half the population had college degrees; for Detroit and Cleveland, the figures were 11 percent and 14 percent.
This migration has happened for understandable personal and professional reasons (said the pundit writing from a coffee shop in northeastern Washington, D.C.), and the dense professional networks it has created have arguably been good for certain kinds of economic dynamism.
But elite self-segregation, and what Charles Murray has dubbed the “coming apart” of the professional and working classes, has also contributed to America’s growing social problems — hardening lines of class and culture, adding layers of misunderstanding and mistrust to an already polarized polity, and leaching brains and social capital from communities that need them most.
Which brings us to the fascinating story of LeBron James.
The basketball superstar’s trajectory up until Friday looked like the entire migration of the talented in miniature (well, a 6-foot-8 miniature). A child of depressed northeastern Ohio, with its struggling cities and declining population, Mr. James grew up to be drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, played for his home-state team for seven brilliant but championship-free seasons, and then famously bolted for a richer, more glamorous locale.
And why? Not just for the money and amenities, but for the professional network. Like superstars in less-athletic fields, Mr. James felt his productivity would be magnified by the right partnerships — in his case, by sharing a court with fellow stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Four NBA Finals appearances and two rings later, it’s clear he judged correctly.
But now he’s making the migration in reverse, returning to the battered Midwestern city he famously betrayed. And strikingly, his statement announcing the move doubled as a kind of communitarian manifesto, implicitly critiquing the values underlying elite self-segregation in America:
“My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio … to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business … Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
Now I don’t want to make too much of an exhortation that is partially just a rich athlete’s brand-managing PR. Especially since homecomings are fraught, complicated undertakings — for superstars even more than ordinary mortals, perhaps — and this one is as likely to end with Mr. James feuding with ownership or forcing a trade as with a championship.
Moreover, even if everything goes smoothly on the court, Mr. James’ “hard work” will be rather more richly rewarded than the typical Ohioan’s, and he’ll be “coming home” while still living, really, in the secure and gilded bubble of the rich and famous. So for a future college graduate deciding between staying on the Acela Corridor or coming back to Akron or Youngstown to raise a family, Mr. James’ example is symbolically inspiring without being terribly relevant to the hazards of real life.
But with all those caveats, there will be a spillover effect of some sort from his decision. Even if it only happens on the margins, Mr. James really did just make a down-at-the-heels part of America a slightly better place to live and work and settle.
And the return of the King is also a reminder that social trends, like careers, aren’t arrows that fly in one direction only. As real estate prices rise insanely on the coasts, as telecommuting becomes more plausible for more people, as once-storied cities hit bottom and rebound … well, there could be more incentives for less-extraordinary professionals to imitate this heartland native’s unexpected return.
At the very least there’s nothing written that says we have to come apart forever. Or that some Americans with less extraordinary but still substantial gifts can’t find a way, like Mr. James, to take those talents home again.
Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.